Faithful Doubters

Thomas is the kind of guy anyone would want on her team. He was loyal, he was brave, he assessed situations well, and he wasn’t prone to flights of fancy. When Jesus decided to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus, even though that area was crawling with people opposed to his ministry, Thomas said, “Let us go with him so that we may die with him.”

When everyone else was gathered inside locked doors on Easter Sunday, Thomas was out. We don’t know where he was, but he wasn’t so paralyzed by fear that he stayed in the house. He ventured out. And because he was out, he missed seeing Jesus.

When he got back to the house, the disciples told him what happened, how Jesus was there, how they saw his scars, how he came in right through the locked door. And Thomas must have looked over this group of sleep-starved, grief-stricken friends and assumed that they had seen a ghost, or an apparition. But not Jesus in his body, not really resurrected.

So Thomas sighed and said, “Hey, this vision or whatever you saw is great. But I don’t think it was really him. It couldn’t be, because he died. That I know. So unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

Now this makes a lot of sense. Wounds were often used in court in those days as proof that a person was who he said he was. In an era without stitches or plastic surgery, the scars a person picked up over the course of life served as an I.D. You were known as Daniel, who had a scar over the left eyebrow from getting hit in the head with a rock when he was a kid and was missing his pinkie due to an unfortunate building accident. You were known by your scars. . .

So they stayed together for a week until Jesus appeared again. Now think about this. These disciples, ten men, several women, stay together for a week in Jerusalem with Thomas, and Thomas with them. They didn’t know if Jesus was going to show up again. They didn’t know what was going to happen next. But . . . for a week, they remained together, in community. Eating together, talking together, praying together. They did not reject Thomas because he didn’t believe them. He didn’t reject them because he thought they were wrong. In the days immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christian community made a safe place for the one who couldn’t believe. . .

What we learn from this story in the gospel of John is that the Christian community must always be open to those who doubt. Because all of us will run into walls we can’t scale, questions we can’t answer, grief that threatens to break us in two. Every one of us, from the youngest to the most senior, will have times, seasons, years, when the ratio of our belief shifts. Few of us believe 100% with consistency. Most of us maybe hover around 80%, with 20% of our answerless questions floating out there. Sometimes in crisis we drop to 10 or 15%, and consider walking away all together.

And for some of us, 15% may be the best we can ever do. We may want nothing more than to have a child-like faith that accepts what is presented and lets the questions rest. But that is not how some of us are wired. We like reason and order and sense. And there’s a lot to this Christianity stuff that stops short of making sense.

For those of us who find ourselves more in that place, the confession of the father in Mark 9 is the best we can do: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

And that’s okay. You don’t have to have it all together before you profess faith. In fact, to profess faith is to declare that you don’t have it all together, you don’t have all the answers, and you are doing the best you can in spite of that. . .

Of course it’s not just the other disciples’ responses to Thomas that guide us in this, but the response of Jesus himself. When Jesus shows up again a week later, he offers a greeting to all and then turns immediately to Thomas. He doesn’t mock Thomas, or scold him. He doesn’t kick him out of the group. Jesus reaches toward him: “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

Jesus opens himself up to investigation. He does not avoid the scrutiny. He does not ignore Thomas’ concerns. Jesus is not afraid of the hard questions. He is not afraid of proving himself. He is not worried that if Thomas gets too close he’ll discover something that he shouldn’t.

Jesus invites Thomas to look, and look closely. And then he says, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Jesus says this for Thomas’ sake, not for his own. Jesus is who Jesus is, whether Thomas believes it or not. But Jesus says what he says out of his overwhelming love for Thomas and his desire that Thomas see Jesus for who he really is, because it will change Thomas’ life.

Jesus wants Thomas to know the power of the resurrection, he wants him to know that death does not have the final say, that he never has to be afraid, that he is never alone. Jesus’ exchange with Thomas is not to judge or rebuke, it is so that Thomas can be invited into the joy of Easter, the joy of new life, the hope of resurrection. . .

Jesus was not afraid of Thomas’ scrutiny, and he is not afraid of ours. Jesus did not reject Thomas in his struggle, and he will not reject you. The selfless love that resulted in scars is the love that is now reaching toward you. Not to judge, but to bless. Not to push away, but to embrace.

Blessed, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

Mary Hulst was the pastor of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan from 1995-2003. This excerpt was taken from her sermon by the same title which was preached on the First Sunday after Easter 2003. Rev. Hulst is presently a doctoral student at the University of Illinois.